Securing research dollars requires knack for grant writing

Slowly but surely, Wisconsin companies are getting over their comparative shyness about asking for federal dollars, but do they know how to ask?

The know-how relates to writing grants in response to the solicitations of federal government agencies and private foundations. For them, the term “unmet need” is one to remember because unless the technology you’re developing solves some sort of problem, or represents the enhancement of an existing technology, grant money will not be forthcoming.

“One of the top reasons that grants fail is that people don’t demonstrate the need and put it in a persuasive manner.” – Roe Parker, Roe M. Parker & Associates

Granting organizations provide some guidance, but unless the grant application clearly explains potential scientific and commercial impacts, the application will be met with a collective yawn. “The key thing is to establish the need for your program,” said Roe Parker of Roe M. Parker & Associates, who teaches a course in grant writing at Madison College. “One of the top reasons that grants fail is that people don’t demonstrate the need and put it in a persuasive manner.”

When pursuing federal grants, there is ample opportunity to be persuasive with different types and phases of grants. Federal granting agencies award Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants, and there are distinct phases. Phase I grants, which typically involve technological proof-of-concept, usually are in the $100,000 range. Phase II grants of up to $750,000 are issued to continue research and development begun in Phase I, and a third phase is designed to take recipients to the point of commercialization. That’s usually where young companies begin to pursue private equity and where investors view grants as non-repeatable income, not a realistic part of company valuation.

With these granting fundamentals in mind, IB spoke to several experts to get some grant-writing advice that can be applied to federal or foundation grants.

Grant writing is hard work

According to Parker, a federal grant proposal might consist of 20 pages of written text and another 25 pages of attachments. “There is big money, but you certainly can face a number of requirements,” he noted. “It’s hard work to prepare the applications. It takes a large amount of time to prepare them.”

Parker identified two types of approaches by federal agencies: In one scenario, money is granted with some requirements, and applicants should expect their finances to be audited, especially with larger grants. In the second scenario, the granting agency works with the recipient as an active partner in organizing the grant program, which makes some entrepreneurs uncomfortable.

The granting process begins with solicitations from any of the various granting agencies of the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget expects all the granting agencies to operate with a core set of concepts for competition, but there are substantial differences between the agencies. “A lot of this is going to be in the topical areas,” Parker noted. “If you are in transportation, they have different wrinkles because of the nature of that topic.”

Parker advises those who want to apply for grants to regularly monitor the federal government’s announcements of grant opportunities at When a grant interests you, make a plan and organize your time accordingly, because some of the application deadlines are staggered, even though most of them will be timed by the federal government’s fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. (State government’s funding years begin July 1.)


The step-by-step process of writing a grant not only varies by government agency, but also by private foundation. With foundations, grant writers can review annual reports or websites; sometimes, they offer contact people who field questions on how to prepare the proposal. “Many of these proposals will be announced in a request for proposal, and that is like an announcement,” Parker said. “They also will provide information as to what they would like to do, what they would like to receive, and sometimes very specific information on the formatting of the document and how to go about applying for it.”

Nancy McClements, head of the reference department at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library, oversees the university’s grants information collection. In her view, having an organized approach, writing in plain English and avoiding technical jargon, and having a non-expert review the finished product are among the keys to successful grant writing.

”Get everything sorted out, and make sure you have the central point,” she advised. “Obviously, doing an outline really helps get your thoughts together. We talk about avoiding jargon, and making it possible that someone else could read your proposal, someone who doesn’t know anything about it, and still understand the main gist of it.”

Typically, grant proposals are broken down into five or six general categories: an executive summary, a needs statement, background information to describe the applicant, outcomes to be achieved, activities required to achieve those outcomes, and the budget involved. Many government agencies will ask for background information about the person who will manage the grants, and possible staff hires in relation to the grant. The grant application also might include solicited letters of support by a stakeholder related to the topic at hand.

Budgetary information pertains to how grant money would be spent, both in terms of direct costs like personnel and indirect costs like overhead, and any income associated with it. “Sometimes, a nonprofit might be doing some fundraising activities in conjunction with a grant,” McClements noted.

Applicants should anticipate comments from the grant maker if the agency has questions about the application, but don’t count on it.

One of the common mistakes applicants make is starting late in the process. “They see a grant deadline of Nov. 30, 2012 and they think, ‘Well, maybe I can start on the 10th of November,’” Parker said. “Typically, the research and the information needed cannot be compressed into small amounts of time.

“Many times, it takes four to six weeks worth of time to get this all organized and in ship shape because the document you give is your calling card. You can’t rely on any in-person presentations to answer questions.”

Included in those four to six weeks of preparation should be a short “cooling off” period in which the writer steps away from the project. When writers come back after cooling off periods, they tend to be better proofreaders for concept, spelling and grammar, and the use of figures.

McClements suggested that even though several people might work on the research, only one person should do the actual writing. Sometimes, the tendency is to have one person write one section and another person write another section, and that can lead to a muddled product. “Having one person write it in one voice can help the flow of a proposal,” she said. “That does not mean it can’t be reviewed and edited by everyone.”

Another reason grants fail is the simple inability to follow instructions, often very explicit instructions. Agencies usually have scoring systems and criteria, and applicants will lose points by not following instructions. “This sounds simplistic, and it’s somewhat like a Golden Rule, but follow the directions of the funding entity, government agency, or private foundation,” Parker stated. “If they want 10 pages, they want 10 pages. If they are looking for specific subheadings and titles, sometimes they are so prescriptive that they will tell you what’s allowable for a margin.”

“If they say they want five copies in paper, give that to them even though that might seem silly to you,” McClements added. “Follow those deadlines. Make sure you have crossed your Ts and dotted your Is with whatever they have required.”

For foundation grants, the best place to start is the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York. There is a subscription charge, but for those who don’t want to subscribe, or can’t afford it, the center has a unique relationship with three Wisconsin universities, including UW-Madison.

“The Foundation Center will set up their website directly to the university’s website so the public can come in at no charge, use the website’s search engine, and find foundations that are giving money out,” Parker said, “and they use search engines divided by geographic areas, dollar amounts, and different things like that.”


To increase your chances of landing grant money, consider collaborating with a partner. Organizations can demonstrate their intent to collaborate by writing a general letter of agreement with the grant. “That’s a trend that has been popular the past five or six years,” Parker noted. “A federal government agency, as an example, if they would get two proposals from Madison for $30,000 each, it would be a stronger proposal to say they were collaborating and asking for $60,000 as one unit and they would collaborate. From the grant maker’s perspective, they don’t want the duplication of services.”

For successful grant recipients, usually there is some kind of telephone or in-person meeting to go over protocols for paperwork and procedures. “Grants are not gifts,” Parker stated. “Many times, they are legal documents in that they have cover pages that need to be signed by the executive officer, which makes it a promissory type of document.”

State grants

Various agencies of state government also award grants and have their own guidelines and application process. However, there is no centralized source for them on the state website. For example, the link for the workforce advancement training grants via the Wisconsin Technical College System’s state office, which sets guidelines and distributes funds, is: Under the established procedure, businesses first contact their local technical college and the college then prepares and submits the application to the state office according to a predefined timeline.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has standing grant programs, so the state does not announce requests for applications. Tom Thieding, communications manager for the WEDC, noted the agency administers several programs, and each has its own grant application and award eligibility requirements. For Community Development Block Grants, the applicant must meet federal guidelines. For state programs like training grants, Brownfield grants, and export development grants, applications must meet respective guidelines.

The point of contact for everything, except export development grants, is WEDC regional account managers (, who work with communities and businesses to first determine if a grant is the appropriate resource that fits their need and then help them fill out the grant application. The point of contact for export development grants is WEDC’s International Business Development division.

Recommended grant writing resources:

  • Mim Carlson & The Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Winning Grants Step by Step: Complete Workbook for Planning and Writing Successful Proposals. Jossey-Bass. 2002. Edition: 2nd.
  • Beverly A. Browning. Grant Writing for Dummies. Wiley Publishing. 2005. Edition: 2nd.
  • Lynn E. Miner & Jeremy T. Miner. Proposal Planning & Writing. Westport, Connecticut. February 28, 2003. Edition: 3rd.

 Recommended books on writing proposals:

Recommended online courses:

Recommended websites:

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click hereIf you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.